NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Ben Zobrist had plenty of suitors this offseason, and he strongly considered a few of them. But none of them could offer what the Chicago Cubs could offer–the proximity to home, the chance for a championship, a somewhat-permanent position and Joe Maddon.
The Giants offered four years first, but they wanted Zobrist to play left field. The Braves were interested, but they wouldn’t go to four years and are not close to winning. The Nationals were involved before the Mets pulled away.
But Chicago was always the favorite, well before FOX Sports reported that it had a chance. It was just a matter of making it work by trading Starlin Castro.
For a player like Zobrist, it had to be tried. For a person like Zobrist, it had to be done.
Zobrist won’t be the best player on the Chicago Cubs next year–and yes, he’ll be 38 by the time the last year of his 4-year, $56 million contract rolls around–but he can be the perfect fit at the perfect time as the Cubs look to build off their 97-win season and into a World Series.
“Ben is a player we have coveted for a long time,” Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said at a press conference on Wednesday. “We tried to trade for him several times, and when he became a free agent obviously he was a huge priority for us.
“He’s a player that fits our roster incredibly well, both offensively and defensively, and perhaps even most importantly, makeup-wise.”
Offensively, Zobrist hit .276 last season with 13 homers, 36 doubles and more walks than strikeouts. He is a perfect complement to what proved to be a team that can, at times, struggle putting the ball in play and can fill the lead-off spot if needed following the anticipated departure of Dexter Fowler. He’s also a switch hitter.
Defensively, he provides something that Maddon loves: options. Although he wants to become more of a regular than the super-utility player he’s been in the past, Zobrist still has the ability to play in the outfield and all across the infield, barely stopping short of picking up Miguel Montero’s catching gear. He won’t win any Gold Gloves, but he won’t hurt you at any position.
But it’s the makeup that makes the difference, particularly in this case.
Of course the Cubs aren’t giving him $56 million to be a nice guy and fail to hit his own weight. But he adds an element that was missing from Chicago: a veteran position player with championship experience. As great as Anthony Rizzo was this season and Kris Bryant and Co. can be, they’ve never had that experience prior to this season. They haven’t been on winning teams with winning examples.
The cost was more than just money. The team had to part with Starlin Castro, who was an integral part of the team for the last six seasons regardless of your personal opinion of him. That could be a shock in such a young clubhouse that has grown up seeing Castro as the face of the franchise.
But with Zobrist coming in, it’s something manager Joe Maddon isn’t concerned with.
“Zo is only about one thing,” Maddon said. “He’s the consummate team-player professional. The kind of impact he can have on our young position players to me is going to be phenomenal. He does take care of himself great. Just the example to be set is going to be perfect I think for our young players.
“I love Starlin Castro. I think he’s outstanding and I think he’s going to be very productive in the American League with the Yankees, but to get Zo to walk in the door right now among the young players and be able to exhibit or exude this kind of influence, not only the work ethic, but how to play the game, play the game properly, show up every day, be ready to play, that’s who he is, man.”
Look no further for that do-what-it-takes attitude than Zobrist’s versatility. At 34, Zobrist has never had a ‘set’ position. It’s been whatever is written on the lineup card, and he’s parlayed that into a stellar career thus far.
“Well, I think you have to have a mind-set of just being willing to do it, first off,” he said. “I think (for) a lot of guys, it’s out of the comfort zone, especially when you first start doing it. And most guys have grown up playing one position or been a prospect at one position.
“So they come to the big leagues and they are like, this is what I do. Then they are getting put out of their comfort zone at the big-league level; it’s tough to do, and I think you have to be willing to do that. I also think a lot more guys can do it if they just put their mind to it.”
The Cubs are about to discover life outside of the comfort zone following a trip to the NLCS a year or two earlier than just about everyone expected. It’s not Zobrist’s job to manage that–that’s what Maddon is for–but he’s an invaluable voice to go along with veterans like Jon Lester, David Ross and John Lackey.
The deal–go figure–keeps the Cubs’ options open with what happens next. Whether it be a trade using some of the untouched prospects, or using the financial flexibility to add another free agent, the Cubs have a good start.
Zobrist got exactly what he wanted. The Cubs got exactly what they needed.
“I wanted to play for this team, I wanted to play for Joe Maddon and I want to win a championship as a Chicago Cub,” Zobrist said. “That’s my one goal the next four years.”